From The Editor | July 3, 2014

What Can Be Done To Change The Reputation Of Pharma?

By Ed Miseta, Chief Editor, Clinical Leader


Thinking back on the week I spent at the DIA 2014 Annual Meeting, I was able to reflect on many enjoyable and informative meetings. None, however, was as memorable as the opportunity I had to be part of the reporter roundtable session and to speak alongside two knowledgeable members of the pharma press: Ben Comer, senior editor of Pharmaceutical Executive and Mandy Jackson, west coast editor for Scrip Intelligence.

During the presentation and the question and answer period that followed, we were able to hit on many interesting topics. One that seemed to strike a chord with those in attendance was the topic of pharma's reputation in the media. It is probably no secret to any of you that this industry is not exactly showered with praise from the media for the hard work and dedication put forth by its employees. In fact, if anything, pharma seems to be one of the most vilified of all industries, both by the media and the general public. Nowadays, it seems attorneys, used car salesmen, and infomercial hosts garner more respect than pharma.  

At the same time, it's not hard to understand why. As with almost anything in the media, bad news is popular news. Good news is, well, boring. Millions use medications every day to treat illnesses that might otherwise kill them. That's not news. Have one medicine cause a deadly adverse reaction in a patient, and news feeds will be abuzz with it for weeks. At the same time, most consumers, unfortunately, are not happy about what they have to pay for their medicines, regardless of the benefits they receive from them. The greedy pharma companies are a convenient scapegoat.

The advent of social media in recent years has not helped. If a pharma company does not provide an unproven medication for free to a dying patient who can't afford it, the story will go viral in no time at all. Pharma's profits and the high price of medicines seem to be a constant topic of interest, with no mention at all of the cost of developing a single drug, or the billions a company will cease to collect when the medicine comes off its short patent life. And when was the last time you turned on the TV and DID NOT see a commercial imploring you phone an attorney if you happened to have an adverse reaction to some drug?

To be honest, I did not spend a lot of time pondering this topic until I heard a presentation last year by John LaMattina, former Pfizer president of R&D and now senior partner at PureTech Ventures. He told the story of being asked to appear on the Dr. Oz show to discuss topics in the pharmaceutical industry. When he walked on stage, he was met with a chorus of boos and a topic that revolved around the ways the pharmaceutical industry lies to consumers. One woman approached him after the show to let him know the pharmaceutical industry killed her child.

Before discussing solutions, here are a few additional points to consider. In a recent blog, my colleague, Rob Wright, discussed an article from Forbes titled America's Most Generous Companies. Anyone perusing the article (or just reading the first two-thirds of it) would have come away with the belief that there is not a single pharma company in the top 10. Instead they would have seen names like Walmart, Wells Fargo, and Chevron. But near the end of the article the author notes product donations are now growing faster than cash gifts. When accounting for donations of both money and product, Pfizer took the top spot. Not surprisingly, it has now held that honor for four years in a row. Ask 1,000 people on the street to identify the most generous company in the U.S., and I have to think few, if any, would select Pfizer, Merck, or Eli Lilly & Co. Alcohol and tobacco manufacturers seem to have better reputations.

Many of you, like me, have seen the commercial on TV that ends with the statement "If you can't afford your medication, AstraZeneca might be able to help." When was the last time you heard any other company offer financial support to aid customers in obtaining its product?

With all the negative media focus on pharma, how does the industry go about changing its reputation? To answer that question, let’s look at the brewing industry. Beer is not exactly a product for the health-minded consumer. It can cause a myriad of short-term symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, dizziness, aggression, and disturbed sleep. But we also know that prolonged use of alcohol can cause anemia, cirrhosis, cancer, dementia, depression, and more. Oddly enough, the beer industry does not seem to have a negative reputation in this country. In fact, because of the advertising campaigns conducted by one large brewer, consumers will likely associate the industry with horses, puppies, and the close relationships between humans and animals. I guess it’s hard to think about the negative consequences of a product while watching horses play a friendly game of football.

What I would like to see in the pharma industry is a joint effort from the top companies to change the perceptions held by consumers and the media. A consortium could be set up that collects funds from Big Pharma. Those funds could be used to run ads on radio and TV, similar to the ad campaigns by the beef and milk industries. Rather than featuring a specific product with the obligatory list of possible side-effects at the end, the ads could feature pharma employees hard at work on the next life-saving drug or the next medicine to treat uncomfortable or painful conditions.

The campaign could also show those same employees interacting with friends and family members, living ordinary lives, and volunteering their time and effort to help out with events attempting to raise money for patients of the diseases they are working so hard to eradicate.

As long as the industry is looked at as a bunch of greedy corporations getting rich at the expense of afflicted patients, its reputation will never change. The biggest asset this industry has is the millions of employees, located around the globe, working hard to eradicate the death and suffering of patients. Putting those amazing employees front and center will be the most effective way to change the hearts and minds of the public and position the entire industry in a better light. I hope we can do so sooner than later. There may still be spots available during next year’s Super Bowl.